When asking if you should quit drinking alcohol during perimenopause, you are bravely broaching two subjects that we commonly avoid talking about, until they become a ‘problem’.
Although many advances are being made in our attitudes towards discussing women’s health, menopause is still a taboo subject for general conversation. Perhaps because we live in a culture that celebrates youth and fears ageing, especially in women. Also though, it may be because it sometimes seems trivial to discuss the unavoidable. Far better to just hold our chins up, get on with it and don’t cry out loud. When we talk about alcohol use we generally split users into two categories – Drinkers, who are regular functioning people deserving of a drink after long days and joke about not understanding the point of the wine bottle stopper. Or, there are alcoholics who have a ‘problem’ with alcohol. These binary descriptions have created a self-flagellating feeling of inadequacy amongst those labelled alcoholics and has prevented many, who do not quite fit into this category, from accepting that alcohol is having a negative impact on their lives. This means we, encouraged by the media, can bypass the question of whether socially acceptable drinking habits are damaging our overall health and wellbeing.
So, if you are questioning whether to quit drinking alcohol during perimenopause then, firstly, good on you for putting your health first and asking the hard questions. Secondly, let me assure you it is not my mission to promote teetotalism. My role, as a mindfulness and wellness advocate for women in their 40s and 50s, is simply to help us build positive relationships with our bodies and stay well whilst navigating our busy modern lives. So, accepting that alcohol use is common and assuming that you don’t believe your alcohol use to be problematic, let’s look at how drinking alcohol might affect women during perimenopause.
Temptation To Drink More
I meet a lot of women in their 40s and 50s. Some will tell you that they hit their stride in midlife. Have never been so confident, in touch with their emotions, self-assured. Never so able to see the world for what it is and love it anyway. This is the wisdom that is supposed to come with age. But let me tell you – it’s not something you wake up with one morning.
This state is usually preceded by a period of world-shifting loss of identity, purpose and self-worth. This is the point at which I most often enter the lives of my female clients.
It’s a time where many of us are waving the kids off to university and wondering when the bliss we were promised when we no longer had to pick up wet towels from the hallway, will kick in. Or maybe we’ve reached the point in our careers we wanted to get to and the view from here is both what we’d been searching for and also as good as it gets, which leave us with mixed feelings. As our bodies change too – refusing to snap back after overindulgences, recover from hangovers and skin and muscles begin to give in to gravity – we can lose touch with ourselves. Even feel betrayed. These sticky feelings are the mud that we wade through to get to the really good grass on the other side. Still, it’s of little comfort and it’s hard to believe when you’re knee-deep in the brown messy stuff.
Then, just at this point of change in our lives comes the Change, with a capital C.
When our lives and our bodies are wreaking havoc with our mental state it’s only natural to reach for those things that we associate with happy times. A study recently found that it was women who turned to alcohol, more than men, as a way of dealing with stress during the first lockdown of the COVID pandemic.
It’s so normalised for us to seek out those things that seem to calm us when we’re anxious, even the unhealthy ones. However, in a culture where a large glass of vino is considered ‘self-care’ and perhaps up to three glasses is not considered excessive (unless you’re driving), how do we know when ‘normalised’ drinking is exacerbating our problems.
Let’s be honest, we know that periods when we’re struggling to make decisions and feeling vulnerable, are not ideal times to be taking anything that ultimately fuels the exact same result. Even if it does provide some temporary relief. It’s this temporary relief, by the way, that keeps us drinking.
Warm glasses of full-bodied red wine and cold evenings go together like coffee and chocolate. Alcohol and activity association is strong. Think warm cider at a Christmas market or picture a bottle of red wine shared in a cosy pub on an icy day. It’s easy to conjure up these images, isn’t it? Yet, it’s more than clever marketing that has created these associations. Alcohol actually raises your body temperature so the craving, whether it’s for whiskey, wine, rum, beer or other beverage, could be our body encourages us to warm up.
In perimenopause though, our body temperature settings are already somewhat spiralling. Meaning, if we are drinking alcohol and experiencing hot flashes, we are getting double the dose. Although there are many wonderful parts of ageing and transitioning through menopause, I’ll be the first to concede that hot flashes are not one of them. In fact, most women would do almost anything to relieve themselves of these flushes. Yet, many have no idea that drinking alcohol could likely be making them more intense.
I cannot overstate the importance of sleep in menopause. Ironically it is the time in our lives when we need sleep the most and we struggle to find it also. There are a variety of reasons why sleep is difficult during menopause which I cover in my blog post ‘7 Tips For Quality Sleep During Menopause’. But alcohol also affects the quality of our sleep. Although a fuzzy head can sink into a pillow and escape to dreamland with relative ease, alcohol reduces our REM sleep which is the stuff we really need. If you’re used to drinking regularly you may find it takes a while for your sleep to readjust if you reduce your alcohol intake. In fact, it may increase the struggle for a week or two. Then, many people report a far greater quality of sleep and increased energy during the day.
As is so common in the health space, experts disagree on whether alcohol negatively affects our hormone balance during menopause. For instance, contrary to the assumption that alcohol’s body warming quality intensifies hot flashes, some believe that, because it releases estrogen, alcohol might lessen the effects of such heat flushes. Naturally, the health world is also in conflict about how alcohol affects our brain chemical balances during menopause.
So, let’s look at what alcohol does to our chemicals and what menopause does, separately.
Menopause and chemical balance – Perimenopause is referred to as ‘the change’ for good reason. Hormones, the messengers of our bodies, are particularly busy during this period, tinkering away with the brain’s chemical releasing functions. Although estrogen is sourced in the ovaries, it has a huge impact on our brains. Depletion of estrogen, which happens in menopause, can negatively impact mood and memory. The latter of which can greatly affect the former since struggling with recall can cause or inflame feelings of anxiety.
Often dismissed as ‘mood swings’, these extreme emotions can take a heavy toll and affect our self-worth. Something which may already be fragile because menopause tends to rear up at a time when children are becoming more independent, our bodies are showing signs of ageing and the decreasing dependency of others on us can leave us with feelings of emptiness.
Alcohol and chemical balance – Many of us may recall not particularly liking alcohol the first time we drank it. It’s a very common story actually. So why, does the majority of the population develop a taste for it to the extent that we indulge in it regularly? Using booze to both celebrate and commiserate. True, it is likely to have a lot to do with the culture around alcohol where in the UK non-drinkers are the minority. However, it may be to do with our brains.
Alcohol reaches our brains within 5 minutes of consumption and triggers the release of the chemical dopamine, also known as the ‘happy hormone’. Our brains are quick to receive dopamine when we begin drinking but as our glasses begin to run dry, so too does our chemical supply. This may well be why the one glass of red wine, that sometimes comes recommended by members of the medical community, is never enough. If you’re in any doubt that alcohol is a drug, the effect it has on our neurotransmitters is proof in itself. Designed to keep us feeling good, our brains create pathways that link alcohol to pleasure. This is what makes alcohol so addictive and what disguises the fact that it is actually a depressant.
Perimenopause + Alcohol + Hormones = ?
Well, exactly. Our bodies are unpredictable at the best of times. Throw in menopause and it’s a roller coaster. Add alcohol and it’s a backwards roller coaster in the dark. I don’t know about you but after my thirties, I’d rather have retaken my math GCSE than gone on a rollercoaster! So yes, alcohol can make us feel better but it’s short-lived and the crash that follows writes off this high, especially when our hormone levels are already spiralling. You might want to consider reserving drinking for special occasions to alleviate your neurotransmitters of too much overtime.
There are many other reasons to reduce or quit drinking alcohol during perimenopause and perhaps after too. Alcohol attributes to weight gain, as does perimenopause. It can also heighten our risk of certain cancers and of osteoporosis. And guess what – so does menopause!
I’m not going to tell you not to drink because, let’s face it, much of what happens during the ‘change’ feel like the shedding of our former selves and it’s not necessarily the time to lose anything else. However, I’ve worked with enough women in their 40s and 50s to know that what lies in wait on the other side of menopause is another beautiful stage of life. One way to get there a little smoother, and feel a little better in mind and body when you do, is to monitor alcohol consumption and be mindful of its effects on you.
Try making your wine a spritzer to enjoy the taste for longer or switch our the post-work de-stress Shiraz and Instagram scroll for a herbal tea and an hour of phone-free time.
As always, my lasting advice is to be kind to yourself and to be mindful.